SOUTH BEND — This year of sweeping change for Notre Dame passed another mile marker Saturday with the Blue and Gold spring game.
The 20,000 or so fans that took in the 2-hour intra-squad scrimmage at Notre Dame Stadium on a bright day got a glimpse of a promising first-year starting quarterback and a taste of the schemes being implemented by new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
The most meaningful ways the Fighting Irish are being transformed after a 4-8 season — the worst in seven years under coach Brian Kelly — have been happening behind the scenes. Notre Dame's biggest issue in 2016, according to Kelly and his players, was an inability to respond to adversity. The Irish too often crumbled when things got tough.
That's what Kelly was trying to fix with a massive staff overhaul last winter. Understandably, the culture change is still a work in progress that will continue through the summer.
"There really isn't a next stage as much as we'll get back into our training," Kelly said after the Gold beat the Blue 27-14. "The physical training will continue, but through that physical training obviously fatigue, stress, grit, how we handle all those things through our training is going to be building the kind of football players that we want. That can handle what goes on in the fourth quarter. That can finish strong. And that'll be the next part of our total preparation for our team."
Kelly hired six new assistants in the offseason, including strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis. Chip Long now runs the offense and calls the plays. Mike Elko is in charge of the defense and Brian Polian was brought in to be special teams coordinator.
The 55-year-old Kelly is taking a more holistic approach. His players wanted him to be more of a presence, create more structure and challenge them more.
"Our five traits of excellence are attention to detail, attitude, grit, smart and laser focus," Notre Dame senior defensive back Drue Tranquill said this week. "I think they do a good job of forming whether it's workouts, practice schedule that helps us develop those habits. I don't think they're habits yet. I think spring has been a great opportunity to develop and try to turn those into habits. But I think it's a consistent process to try to develop daily, day in and day out, those traits."
Kelly said the spring game was about taking the teaching into a competitive environment. Results don't mean much, but the change on the field is real, too.
Under Long, the offense expects to play with faster tempo and use more run-pass option plays. Those were on display Saturday. A RPO opened up Chris Finke down the middle for a 37-yard pass from No. 2 quarterback Ian Book. Kelly, who coached from the field behind the quarterbacks, said he had to remind players to flip the ball to the line judge, not the side judge, after they were tackled to save a few extra seconds.
Elko's defense showed some of the up-the-middle pressure that worked so well at Wake Forest, and Tranquill looked like a natural in the Rover position that is a key to the new scheme. He burst through the guard and tackle on one play for a tackle for loss.
Brandon Wimbush, a former four-star recruit, is taking over at quarterback for DeShone Kizer. The junior was 22 for 32 for 303 yards with two interceptions on Saturday, playing against the first-team defense.
"I played within the system," Wimbush said. "I think the offense looked the part."
Elko would seem to have the tougher task of the two new coordinators. The offense seems to have ample playmakers around Wimbush. On defense, more need to emerge — like defensive end Daelin Hayes. The 255-pounder also looked the part in the spring game, providing steady pressure on Wimbush.
But this spring has been more about working on the big picture at Notre Dame before a pivotal season for Kelly.
"Hey Brian Kelly! Four and eight!" a fan shouted from the stands late in the first half. The taunt could be heard loud and clear throughout the stadium.
What that big picture looks like for the Fighting Irish will be revealed in September.
"I think it's just been different in an intensity level," senior tackle Mike Glinchey said. "Things have just completely turned on its head here. Strength and conditioning, offense, defense, special teams. All of our leaders in those areas are different. With new coaching comes new things that you have to learn and new ways that you have to go about your business."